Norwalk Author Breaks Wall of Religious Silence

By Gloria Cole Sugarman
Norwalk Hour [Norwalk CT]
February 27, 2004

The Roman Catholic Church is traditionally a closed corporation, but it has been front-page headlines ever since The Boston Globe published the first stories about sexual abuse by priests in 2002. Now, with the release of Mel Gibson's controversial film, The Passion of the Christ with Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code remaining at the top of the best sellers lists; and, most significantly, with the newly released report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the scandals, the church is still the focus of what must be unwanted publicity. The report, commissioned by the American Catholic bishops and released Friday, cites 10,667 victims abused by 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2000 and even these figures do not purport to represent the full extent of the problem. Compounding the problem was the report of the Feb. 23 suicide of 29-year-old Patrick McSorley, who was one of the Boston scandal's most public accusers when he named Father John J. Geoghan as his abuser when the boy was 10. Geoghan was defrocked in 1998 and sentenced to prison in 2002, where he died from a beating and strangulation by another inmate. On the same day McSorley's suicide was reported, a Vatican report challenged the American church's policy of zero tolerance as an overreaction and potentially counterproductive in trying to keep children safe from sexual abuse Add to that mix, the publication of the book Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II by Catholic journalists Jason Berry, Gerald Renner, and you have a toxic brew. Renner, a Norwalk resident who was a religion reporter for The Hartford Courant for many years, after having been editor of the New York Religious News Service and a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said, we're not Catholic bashing. We're trying to describe a situation that needs to be addressed That situation, as Renner and Berry see it, is the cover up of the sex-abuse scandal that is consistent with the long tradition of secrecy within the church. Their journey into this dark and cloistered world began eight years ago when Renner tried to cover the activities of the Legion of Christ, an ultra conservative group of 500 Catholic priests and 2,000 seminarians in 20 countries based in Orange, who refused to cooperate with his journalistic efforts. The legion is given credit by Mel Gibson for assisting in the making of his film. As Renner and Berry began to probe into the workings of the legion, they found that hundreds of Catholics who subscribe to the very conservative view of the church had been badly used by them. They wound up feeling very betrayed, Renner said, adding, the legion's main goal seems to be to raise money and get recruits The founder of the legion, they discovered, is a Mexican priest named Father Marcel Maciel, now in Rome, who has been widely accused of molesting seminarians and using mind-control techniques on them. "First, I had a call from a priest who told me that Father Maciel had an eye for little boys", Renner said. "Then Jason Berry began getting calls from people who told him they had been abused by Maciel. So we decided to investigate the story together." Once their meticulously researched investigation resulted in a co-bylined article in The Courant published Feb. 27, 1997, they began to hear from the Washington D.C. law firmn which Kenneth Starr is a partner and which represents the Vatican, telling them that Father Maciel was the target of a conspiracy. We knew that the only people who could do anything were at the Vatican Renner said, and our only response from them was a secretary who said, if you've had no response, you will get no response. They say they were further told; the case is closed for now. Meanwhile, they began to pursue their story from another angle: that of Father Tom Doyle, a priest at the Vatican Embassy in Washington who began speaking out against the corruption in the church and was finally exiled for doing so. Having begun his career as a Dominican, Doyle went on to serve as canon lawyer for the Vatican embassy in the early 1980s. Considered by Renner and Berry as a Catholic embodiment of the rebel and a priest of integrity Doyle sacrificed his diplomatic career to seek justice for the victims of clergy sexual abuse and became an outcast in the eyes of many bishops who had made a practice of quietly moving pedophiles from parish to parish. Undaunted, Doyle joined the Air Force as a chaplain and continued to speak the truth to the powers of the church while he acted as a resource to victims, their attorneys and journalists. Among the assertions put forth in the book are: - The popeos ties to the Legion of Christ, which, in addition to being a repressive religious order, forces its priests to take extra vows of secrecy to never report on their superiors and to report those who do. - The pope's allegiance to Father Maciel, whom he has widely praised for being The most successful fund-raiser of the 20th century Catholic Church - The unsung saga of priests like Tom Doyle. - That the pope had been briefed nearly a decade before the sexual abuse scandals broke into the news but provided no plan of action. - For years, Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials resisted the pleas of American bishops for a streamlined process to defrock priests who had abused children. Finally, what the authors are pleading for is a more open Catholic Church. I have long believed that the Catholic Church needs to be more transparent Renner said. Long before I had any idea of the sexual abuse, I knew that there were many things that were covered up. For instance, when a Bridgeport priest who had been accused of molesting boys was sent for treatment, the Diocese sent a memo to all priests to say he was being treated for hepatitis. And the group of faithful Catholics who started the movement Voice of the Faithful to discuss the problems in the church were not allowed to meet at the Catholic Church here in Norwalk, but have to meet at the Congregational Church. There needs to be a lot more involvement of lay people in the Church. If there had been, there would never have been this cover-up. Lay people have an important role to play, he said.

(Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner will be published March 4 by Free Press. The authors will sign books Sunday, March 14, 3:00 p.m. at Borders Books, 14 Danbury Road, Wilton.)